Thursday, October 26, 2006

Kamakura, Japan

Friends: For three days I hovered around and on Mount Fuji waiting to see if it would reveal itself. On the third day I awoke to blue skies, but still the upper three-fourths of the mountain remained cloaked in cloud, as if it were a work in progress whose artist wanted no one to see what he was creating. Fuji has it own weather system, so though it was bright and sunny surrounding it, those on the mountain could be engulfed in clouds or rain.

As I descended it the day before on my bike, I plunged through a range of weather over the 5,000 feet of my descent. There were stretches of dry pavement, but mostly it was wet. I feared a most perilous descent, as there were wet and slimy leaves on the road that threatened to send me flying. Fortunately, there had been enough traffic to have cleared a path through them and with only a six per cent grade and not too much moisture on the road I could control my speed and tightrope through the fallen foliage.

I did suffer one terrifying stretch when there was an excess of water on the road and my brakes weren't responding. I unclipped from the pedals and was ready to start dragging my feet, though at over 20 mph it wouldn't have made much of a difference. But then after what seemed like a couple of minutes, but was probably only five or six seconds, the brakes took hold and I made it through the bend and steered clear of the leaves. The biggest peril was my plunging body
temperature. I wasn't generating any body heat on the 18 miles of descent and I had just barely warmed up from my hike in the wet and cold.

If the road had been dry I would have flown down in 40 minutes or so, but with the wet it was taking me closer to an hour. The cold air and the wind chill my speed was generating were knifing at me, even though six layers covered my torso, all that I had. As my core temperature fell, it encouraged me to take greater risks and brake less to get this over with. I tried to ward the cold off my hands by periodically putting one hand behind my back for a few moments out of the cold wind when I felt safe enough not to have two hands on the brakes.

The surest way of warming up was by riding hard. There was a good climb after I'd completed the descent around the base of the mountain that was just what I needed. Ordinarily I would have shed all layers except one after several minutes of all out effort, but not this time. I needed the next day's sun to dry out my gear, which hadn't seen any sun for a couple of days. As I circled around Fuji to its east under clear skies,heading towards Tokyo, I would give it a glance whenever there was a break in the trees to see if those clouds were lifting. They were inching their way up. I wondered if there might be an alarm or sirens or loud music to herald its unveiling. Many of the towns I have passed through have sound systems that make announcements or play music or sound a wake-up call at 6:30, so it was fully plausible.

The clouds began to break up and Fuji revealed more and more in staggered segments almost like a stripper teasing those of us watching. It would reveal one shoulder and then another and then cover one and reveal its peak then hide it again. The road was narrow and windy and up and down. I was lucky to be on my bike, able to stop at any time for a photograph on the narrow road. I got a shot with a golfers in the foreground, another with a military base, and then with myself taken by a cab driver who had stopped for his passengers. It was much more exciting to have seen Fuji like this, after all the suspense and anticipating, than if it had been clear upon my arrival.

It was nice to return to sea level and camp along the ocean once again. For the second time in a week I awoke to the sound of golf balls being shot. I was hidden in some bushes in a park. Some guy had shown up at six a.m. to hit a few balls. One went astray and actually rolled under my tent. I no doubt gave him a surprise when I rolled it back out towards him.  A few days earlier I had camped near a driving range. I went to sleep with the ping of balls being shot and awoke to them as well.

My calves were tight from my hike up Fuji, exercise they haven't had. They've had a bit of a rest here in Kamakura, as I spent a day wandering among various complexes of temples in this former capital city of Japan 40 miles south of Tokyo. There were hoards of tourists and pilgrims and school children, mostly Japanese, but now that I'm closing in on Tokyo there were a few foreigners sprinkled in, the most I have seen. I was getting a small taste of Kyoto and its 2,000 temples. One thing Kyoto doesn't have that Kamakura does, is the Daibutsu--a 45-foot high, 121-ton bronze Buddha from 1252. For a small fee, one can climb up into its head. It was enclosed for 250 years, until a tsunami swept away its enclosure.

And for my final act, I will attempt to ride through Tokyo. It took the British cyclist and writer Josie Dew three days to navigate her way through the urban mayhem starting over 20 miles away in Yokahama, Japan's second largest city with three-and-a-half million people. I'm not sure if there is a main road I can stick to or if I will have to pick and choose my way, as evidently Josie opted to do. But she fancies herself a humorist and may have exaggerated.

Later, George

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